Squandered Potential, Plays Well

A gauzy lassitude blankets men’s tennis this week, which also happens to be Roger Federer’s 286th week as the world’s top player. Admittedly the degree to which one finds it smothering will depend on your preferences regarding the top players, and towards those already reapplying themselves in Stuttgart, BÃ¥stad, Umag and Newport. Fans of the new No.1 are doubtless content to bask and purr a while longer. Fans of Cedrik Marcel Stebe have been looking forward to this short stretch all year, this tiny assortment of clay tournaments so inconsequential that it defies even the ATP’s attempts to market it badly. This is Stebe’s time to shine. These few clay tournaments, wedged artlessly between Wimbledon and the US hardcourts, have never made a great deal of sense , assuming that sense is something a tennis calendar has to make. With the grass court Olympics only weeks away, they make even less sense. Still, BÃ¥stad is worth tuning in to merely for the setting, as attractive as anywhere on the tour, although it is, sadly, exactly one Robin Soderling short.

Assuming Novak Djokovic doesn’t scrounge up 76 ranking points in the next ten days, Federer will next week break the all-time record for weeks at No.1, currently held by Pete Sampras. Already this week he has apparently achieved some kind of record for consecutive media appearances. I know this because a number of media reports have now appeared to tell us how much media Federer is doing. You know it’s a slow week when the media starts marvelling at itself. And now I’m marvelling at that. Before ennui overwhelms us all, I’ll marvel at something else. I’ll say random things about Wimbledon.

Nary a Dry Eye

‘Ladies and Gentlemen, the Wimbledon Gentleman’s Singles Champion 2012, Roger Fereder!’ It was a mystery why the MC duties for the men’s final trophy presentation were given to someone who apparently doesn’t follow the sport. He sounded far too old to be the work experience kid.

Aside from that, the presentation had its share of stirring moments, depending on one’s tastes. Sadists who relish the spectacle of a lean Scotsman falling to collect himself for a painful eternity – a niche fetish, as these things go – were well served. Murray remained unmade for an uncomfortably long time, which rendered his eventual rally all the more poignant, especially when he broke down again upon thanking his supporters. The unsayable Roger Fereder bestowed a hug on him after that, with the free arm that wasn’t clutching a hefty, pineapple-themed trophy. He was Single Handed Champion of the World, after all.

Wanting, and found tested

Reproducing last year’s success was always going to test Bernard Tomic. In 2011, as an 18-year-old, he became the youngest Wimbledon quarterfinalist in 25 years. Losing in the first round as a 19-year-old turned out to be an altogether lesser achievement. The Australian media proved typically eager to explore the difference fully, presumably as a way of coming to terms with the despair induced when no other Australians progressed past the second round. Lleyton Hewitt, as always, had just suffered a bad draw. Sam Stosur, the world No.5 and reigning US Open champion, had outdone herself merely to win a round on grass. But Tomic was the great hope. Wasn’t he supposed to be No.1 by now?

Tomic quickly conceded that he hadn’t done enough work, and that he was entirely to blame for the desultory loss to David Goffin. (It wasn’t reported to what extent Goffin agreed with this assessment.) This tallied well with the prevailing local sentiment – tales of squandered potential play well here – and so he was subsequently applauded for his contrition, and held up at least once as an example of how honest self-appraisal will reveal the clear path forward, a perfect example of confusing words for deeds. It is to Tomic’s credit that he has worked hard enough elsewhere that while his ranking has dropped, it hasn’t been cataclysmic. He remains in the top 50, for now, but securing a US Open seeding will require more than good intentions, self-flagellation and cunningly wrought strategies. He’ll probably have to win some matches on the US hardcourts.

Milos Raonic has demonstrated a knack for winning matches on US hardcourts, although he traditionally flourishes earlier in the season, preferring to spend the summer recovering from hip surgery. What he hasn’t demonstrated is a capacity to win on the Wimbledon grass, in direct contravention of everyone’s stentorian pronouncements that he should never lose. He was probably unlucky to discover a resurgent Sam Querrey this year, but top players are top players because an unlucky early round match is merely testing rather than disastrous (with notable exceptions). Plenty of people selected Raonic as their outside shot at winning the title, assuming the top three were otherwise indisposed. Failing that, it was at least expected that the Canadian would progress the farthest of all his peers. I suppose he did, so long as you don’t consider Goffin a peer, on account of him being, um, Belgian. Like Grigor Dimitrov and Ryan Harrison, Raonic progressed all the way to the second round. Once there he not only finished his match (unlike Dimitrov), he actually won a set. The sky is the limit, of course, but it’s still the sky, and far away.

Brian Baker is 27, and therefore the oldest youngster in world tennis right now, with the possible exception of Tommy Haas. Baker reached the fourth round, where his dream run was cut short by Philipp Kohlschreiber, who was historically more likely to facilitate other player’s dreams by losing spectacularly. Baker has now proved he can play on clay and grass. It’s hard to imagine he can’t perform on US hardcourts, especially since he isn’t playing in the Olympics, and will be able to feast on anaemic draws laid out across the breadth of the continental United States.

The quiet American is now ranked No.76, and thus he won’t have to qualify for the US Open. Direct entry will undoubtedly seem like a bewildering luxury to Baker, who has grown accustomed to turning up at tournaments a week early, although it’s probably more accurate to say he still isn’t used to turning up at all. He will end the year inside the top 50, mark my words. Assuming his body holds together – his name is a by-word for physical sturdiness – then it is entirely possible that he could be seeded for the Australian Open. Imagine that. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Spun Gold

My favourite commentary moment came from Mark Petchey, a man who once comforted us with the news that ‘We now have so many memories we can never forget’. This unforgettable memory came while Petch was sharing a booth with John McEnroe and Tim Henman, although I cannot recall the match they were calling. One of the players executed a fine volley, which I suppose is remarkable enough given the current state of the tour. This was Petchey’s cue to launch into a disquisition on the finer points of volleying technique. Henman’s prowess at the net was fundamental to his perennial top-ten ranking. McEnroe’s forecourt genius propelled him to No.1, and seven major titles. Petchey peaked at No.80, which is respectable, but hardly comparable. He never broke into the top 100 in doubles.

It was rather like seeing someone stumble into the grandmothers-only session at an egg-sucking convention, only to knock down the key-note speaker and snatch away her microphone.

It was delightful.

A Smacked Gob

In January we marvelled when Leander Paes and Radek Stepanek defeated the Bryan Brothers to snatch the Australian Open doubles title. Jonathan Marray and Frederik Nielsen have won Wimbledon, thereby surpassing at a canter that earlier achievement, if only for sheer audacity. Four of their six matches went to five sets. Quite incredibly, their only straight sets win came against the team of Karlovic and Moser, which was also the only match that didn’t feature a tiebreak (the others all featured at least two each). Marray and Nielsen defeated the Bryans in the semifinals (6/4 7/6 6/7 7/6), and Lindstedt and Tecau in the final. This is the first career title for both of them.

Like the rest of us, they still cannot believe it.


Filed under Grand Slams

One, Seven, Seventeen

Wimbledon, Final

(3) Federer d. (4) Murray, 4/6 7/5 6/3 6/4

The most pressing issue facing anyone determined to talk about Roger Federer’s era-sundering victory in today’s Wimbledon final is deciding in what order to sprinkle his latest assortment of accomplishments onto what is already an imposing heap. Sundered eras – shattered epochs by any other name – tend to produce piles of rubble anyway, but Federer’s mound of achievements is still easy enough to pick out. Just follow the lifted gaze of those around you. Everyone is staring up at it, even those who’d prefer to set it on fire. On the very top is a jumble of golden Wimbledon trophies, each capped by a tiny and anachronistic pineapple, like Kipling a memento from an imperial age. A large crane has just dropped the seventh of these into place.

I will therefore go with this order: Federer has now won his seventh Wimbledon title, his seventeenth Slam, and has regained the world No.1 ranking for the first time since June 2010. As anticipated, he has also become the first man to achieve this feat while his father wore a red baseball cap bearing his son’s monogram. He is also the first man to do it under a roof. A seventh Wimbledon title of course ties Federer with Pete Sampras, while his eight finals push him past anyone. Seventeen majors is also three clear of Sampras’ old mark, set way back in halcyon 2002, when the internet was still more pornography than cats. Furthermore, Federer will now inevitably surpass the American’s record of 286 weeks atop the ATP rankings. If anyone could empathise with Andy Murray’s desolation afterwards, it was Pistol Pete, who throughout his career always maintained a strong line in empathy.

Then again, sympathy for Murray hardly hinged on witnessing your place in history being eclipsed. It just required a heart fashioned from any substance more yielding than flint. Before the match, my television aired a short, leaden-handed (American-produced) documentary that systemically interviewed every resident of Dunblane, who turned out to be unanimous in their faith that their most famous native son would in winning Wimbledon achieve final closure for the school massacre of 1996. If the aim was to make British support a moral issue, it worked. Yet again, a journey towards absurdity merely resulted in the discovery that some Americans had arrived there first, propelled entirely by earnestness. Among the many messages, one was clear: Federer might arguably be the world’s most beloved tennis player, but he wasn’t the good guy today, no matter how many numbers he was chasing. The only number Murray, and by extension Great Britain, were interested in was one. One Wimbledon singles title for one British man. That way they could move beyond 1936. 1936 is old news.

Nonetheless, according to the betting markets, and any number of shoddily indefinitive online polls, picking the bad guy to win in four sets was the safe option. I received a message before the match asking for my prediction, with the qualification that I wasn’t allowed to pick Federer in four. With the default response closed to me, I realised I had no idea – that Dunblane piece had me spooked – and said as much. Furthermore, I firmly believed that the version of Murray who boasted a winning record against Federer would make something more than a token appearance today, for all that he has historically shied away from the brightest spotlights. Meanwhile on my television, the vision cut away to a pub somewhere in Scotland where pale people were failing to contain themselves, then back to SW19, where two very healthy men were strolling purposefully onto a tennis court. The taller one was holding a racquet, and looking sternly intent.

This was the Murray that decided the first set, and that imposed himself for all but one game of the second, which was unfortunately its very last game. Federer commenced nervously, sealing the break of his own serve in the first game with a stiff drive volley beyond the open court. But Murray was relentless, fearless with his pace and bold with his depth. Federer’s unforced error tally began rapidly to mount, though he recovered the early break. It was tight, and the Centre Court crowd, largely in accord with the good folk of Dunblane, roared their approval as Murray saved break points in the eighth game, and then broke, and served it out. It was his first set in a major final, and he deserved it. By the standards of a Federer match, it had taken an eternity. The second went by quicker – there were actual love holds – but Murray was still on top. This time it was Federer’s turn to fight off break points late. At 6/5, he broke Murray to steal the set, capping the achievement with a pair of sumptuous grass-court points, each proving that immense variety is possible even between successive drop volleys. The roof was still open, and momentum had shifted. One set all, but Federer was suddenly ahead.

Much will be made – indeed, has been made – of the closing of the roof at 1/1 in the third set. Mostly what has been made is much ado in spades, heaping up the evidence that roof closure unfairly favoured the Swiss. General consensus holds that Federer grows into an unplayable colossus when protected from the fierce sky, since he is otherwise diminished by an undiagnosed agoraphobia. His lauded equanimity is apparently vulnerable to the merest breeze. Indoors, though, he’s a juggernaut, a thing of darkness, luridly spot-lit. He seemed rejuvenated after returning from the break. But it’s worth pointing out that he was already looking refreshed before the drizzle deepened into a downpour. It came when he broke audaciously to grab that second set.

Thereafter Federer was hardly unplayable – Murray played him close – but he was the Federer that Wimbledon remembers. As John Newcombe would say, this was the Federer of ‘four or five years ago’. In fact, John Newcombe did say that, repeatedly, and Todd Woodbridge proved powerless to stop him. Now it was Murray holding on. Frequently he was holding onto parts of his own anatomy – back, leg, nothing lewd – always a sure sign that the Scot is in some trouble. The key moments came in the sixth game, enough of them that they stretched it out to a 20-minute, ten-deuce epic, in which Murray fell over a lot and saved a commendable five of six break points. But he didn’t save the sixth. Soon it was two sets to one. The break in the fourth set was entirely in keeping with the run of play. The IBM Slamtracker’s handy momentum bar, an almost unreadable way of presenting us with information we already know, concurred. It didn’t tell us that Federer broke with a dismissive backhand riposte at his closing opponent, but luckily the pictures did. Murray could feel it slipping away, and his self-reproach gained its customary bitter edge. The camera swung over Murray’s Mound, inspiring a desultory cheer. When the chance to be shown on the Jumbotron cannot induce fans to caper like lunatics, then you know their despair is consuming. They weren’t alone. How could one not feel for Murray, even as he slipped to that dark place in which the crowd’s desperate adulation helps less than it hinders? When Murray’s final forehand pass – his money shot – landed barely wide on match point, it might have warranted a challenge, but he had none left. There was nothing left.

Federer collapsed to the court. In a moment, he was again the world No.1 and Wimbledon champion. The new epoch felt suspiciously like an old one. The new omelette tasted uncannily familiar. The crowd had by now spent an entire set cleansing their palates, and were cheering wildly. They cheered for both players. Murray looked wearily and tearfully numb, retaining only enough energy to punch the next person who suggested that Nadal’s early exit had ultimately enabled anything more than a deeper heartache. The Wimbledon presentation can be a pompous and impersonal affair, and to Murray, striving for an exquisite eternity to contain his tears, while the stadium around him broke down, it might have felt cruel. It occurred to me that by spacing the players so far apart – Federer loitered by the net, while Murray gulped steadying breaths by the baseline – Federer was unable to bestow a spontaneous hug on his opponent, even if he’d wanted to. Murray was alone among his millions. Eventually he gathered himself, and spoke briefly but movingly. Obliged to watch helplessly from the stands, those members of his camp not named Ivan Lendl were a mess.

Federer took the microphone, and, mercifully, didn’t seek to ameliorate Murray’s pain by claiming he knew just how the Scot felt. Instead, he proved typically eloquent in elaborating upon how he himself felt. It turned out he felt pretty good. His twin girls were fluttering tiny hands at their dad by this time, as were the grown-ups pressed close about them, including Roger’s father Robert in his lucky red cap. Their man once spent half a decade at the top of the sport, and now he’s back. And he doesn’t have to decide whether 1 or 7 or 17 matters more. He has them all.


Filed under Grand Slams

Curious Meteorological Phenomena

Wimbledon, Semifinals

(4) Murray d. (5) Tsonga, 6/3 6/4 3/6 7/5

It was raining when the first of the Wimbledon semifinals commenced, a curious meteorological phenomenon that saw the tournament organisers make the unprecedented decision of closing the roof before play started. This signalled a radical departure from their earlier policy, which had been to consult the resident haruspex, and then do nothing. In any case, having begun that way, they were obliged to end that way. (The extent to which this aided Federer is arguable. He remains the reigning and uncontested monarch of roofed tennis, but this owes as much to the consistent low bounce than to the absence of curious meteorological phenomena like drizzle and zephyrs. Indian Wells was merely the most recent display of his aptitude in high winds.)

During the break between matches the roof cracked open, and a dazzling line of sunshine began to expand and encompass the court. The camera tilted up, revealing a clearing sky, with vast and surely edible cumulous towers rolling through a field of Titian blue (dissolving cirrus wisps arrived later). It seemed like an omen. No one could say for whom, unless they were British, in which case it was assumed that it would necessarily favour Andy Murray’s opponent, regardless of who that might be. With minutes to go before the players appeared on court, ripples of speculation furrowed outward across the Wimbledon grounds, betting markets quivered, and otherwise stiff upper lips trembled. Murray’s Mound – the traditionally alliterative hillock upon which British fans congregate in order to celebrate their compatriots’ semifinal failures – had been awash with umbrellas during Federer’s victory, but these had vanished. The mood remained upbeat, for all that the introduction of weather would clearly favour Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, as would the location, the scoring system and the gods, busy elsewhere. Murray had not reached a Wimbledon final in 74 years, back when his name was apparently Bunny. (It’s possible I wasn’t paying close attention, and Simon Reed was rather going on.) Nor had any Frenchman contested a Wimbledon final in 15 years, since Cedric Pioline pushed Pete Sampras for almost four games. But one of them – Murray or Tsonga – would be obliged by fate and the propulsive structure of tournament play to progress, unless they formed a gentleman’s agreement not to, thereby voiding all betting markets.

Through the first two sets, Murray’s demeanour remained gentlemanly and collected even as he carved his opponent to pieces. He was impeccable on serve, fleet over the hardening turf, and deft and stylish on passing shots. No trip forward was safe for Tsonga, especially if he strove to gain the forecourt behind his serve. Murray’s returning was everything that Djokovic’s hadn’t been short hours earlier. Tsonga pulled off some impressive half-volleys, despite a curiously brickish technique, but having to do so repeatedly was only going to end one way. And it quickly became apparent that giving Murray a forehand pass to run at was suicidal, except to Tsonga, who lacks a coach to explain to him that the law of averages isn’t a thing, at least within the context of a tennis match. Murray can make those shots all day, and set about proving it.

The mood on Murray’s Mound rose, although it was as ever laced with dread. After all, how can British hearts be broken if Murray didn’t first build a lead? Those who have never known hope cannot know true despair. The dread deepened in the third, as the Scot’s momentum slackened. This is traditionally his cue to fade away entirely, although it was worth pointing out that he traditionally faces Rafael Nadal at this stage. This was merely Tsonga, who had never displayed any aptitude for unlikely comebacks from two sets down at Wimbledon. The English commentator helpfully reminded us of Tsonga’s unlikely comeback from two sets down at Wimbledon last year, against Federer, thereby dialling up the native dread up to a more acceptable level.

Well behind, Tsonga’s endeavours grew reckless, and for a while it paid off, although he still spent a lot of time lounging on the grass watching winners curl by. He spent even more time there, doubled over, after Murray probed the Frenchman’s crotch with frankly ungentlemanly vigour, thus guaranteeing a welter of ball-related puns across various forms of social media, and later proving that American tennis sites are uncomfortable with the word ‘testicle’, either singularly or in the plural. Naff euphemism abounded. Although Tsonga did recover sufficiently to serve out the third set, he was clearly discomfited, and for a time at the beginning of the fourth set his decision-making went awry, although he has admittedly spent his career demonstrating a capacity to make poor decisions without first undergoing blunt-force castration. He blew a useful chance to maintain momentum in the fourth with some ill-advised two-fisted backhands, and sought to correct this by removing his left hand from the racquet, which didn’t help at all.

Murray, unusually unflappable astride a surge of national terror, was again on top, although he couldn’t quite gain the vital break. But then, with Tsonga serving at 5/6, the Scot pounced, and English, sorry British, hearts quailed at the reality that he might actually win. Tsonga dumped a simple volley into the net, and it was 15/40. Cometh the hour, cometh the return, and the grinding hours of Ivan Lendl’s tutelage bore fruit with a last, fearless forehand crosscourt, dispatching a worthy Tsonga slider onto the far sideline. Murray dropped his racquet and pressed his hands to his face. But it was called out. The call had been swallowed in the roar, but it was there. Eventually Murray challenged, after a sufficient delay that British fans should give thanks that Kader Nouni wasn’t presiding. Tsonga lent on the net, flashing his beautiful smile. Murray grinned back, a study in raw anxiety. Hawkeye revealed an elliptical white dot smeared across the outer half of a line. Centre Court erupted, and the players embraced. Murray lifted his face to the sky, and ambled out into the middle of the playing surface, fighting a private battle to dam the tears spilling over. The United Kingdom allowed itself a moment’s respite from its indefatigable consternation, but Murray, somehow, was alone, gazing straight up.

The broadcasters didn’t allow the moment to last. A statue of Fred Perry appeared on screen, accompanied by a reminder that Murray would face Federer in the final. A long day has passed since then, and the elation has already been revised downward, and given way to the certainty that Murray will not beat the Swiss. Some have suggested that his only chance lies with having the roof open, sunlight apparently being Federer’s kryptonite. I’m neither overly convinced by Federer’s clear favouritism, nor by the delicacy of his calibration. Really, the idea that Federer’s serve is so much more potent indoors has little statistical basis in fact, for all that Richard Krajicek, writing in The Guardian, insists otherwise. Of course, everyone’s serve is aided by still conditions, but Federer has repeatedly demonstrated that his serve is less affected by wind than other players. Recall the US Open quarterfinals in 2010, when he carved through Robin Soderling as though they weren’t conducting the match in a gale.

No, I expect the match to be close regardless of whatever doom might be divined from the entrails, whether the roof is open, closed, or on fire. It will be close because I suspect Murray is no longer the same man as the one who lost nine straight sets in major finals. I don’t know if he will win, since Roger Federer is actually pretty good at tennis, and is pursuing some fairly important goals of his own. But I know he can win, and I have a feeling we will be treated to the finest Wimbledon final since 2009. If that inspires any hope, beware. That way lies despair.

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Making Omelettes

Wimbledon, Semifinal

(3) Federer d. (1) Djokovic, 6/3 3/6 6/4 6/3

The verdict is in. Sunday’s men’s final at Wimbledon will be nothing short of epoch-shattering. The statistics prove it. This is troubling news for those who remain quaintly attached to the current epoch, with its slavish devotion to precision time-keeping and its increasingly mannered approach to cuisine. But, if nothing else, history and reality cooking shows have taught us that omelettes aren’t to be fashioned from intact eggs, and it has, quite literally, been weeks since a tennis matches had this much riding on it. Change is coming. You really can’t stop it.

Indeed, the epoch only narrowly survived today’s semifinals intact, although in the case of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga the cracked eggs barely remained metaphorical. Records were begging to be smashed or assembled all over the place, depending on one’s proclivities. Novak Djokovic sought to complete the career Grand Slam of defeating Roger Federer in major semifinals, thereby becoming the first man to do so. Federer, for his part, would by losing have completed his career Grand Slam of falling in major semifinals. Opportunities like that don’t come around every day. Had he lost, Andy Murray would have become the first man to fail to reach a Wimbledon final after having Rafael Nadal cleared from his path, and therefore the first person to be publically executed in the United Kingdom in nearly fifty years. (Federer’s earlier claim of 150,000 years, widely reported, was clearly made in jest.) Tsonga, following an incident late in the third set, would have become the first person to win a mixed-doubles match on his own. The lesson is that when epochs require shattering, it is the quantity of the records that matter, rather than the quality.

Frankly, it is daunting how the quirky statistics pour forth when important matches take place. At the best of times these numbers are an insistent flow at risk of deepening into a flood. When fraught Wimbledon semifinals come around this flood can expand to a vast cataract that threatens to inundate farmland for miles around. I understand that for many fans statistics create the illusion of apprehending the sport in a meaningful way. This is fine, assuming we don’t thereby invest the sport with more meaning than it can sustain – the conceit of American coverage – or imagine that these are terms the players themselves think in. We mustn’t pretend this stuff matters. To the players, the numbers that truly count are few. For Federer those numbers are 1, 7, 17, and 286.

Federer, who with today’s victory has reached more major finals that anyone else, is constantly reminded of obscure milestones. The more he professes his unawareness of each record in the teeth of stern interrogation, the more scepticism we feel.  How can this stuff mean so little to him, we wonder, when it means so much to us? Coming into today’s match, Federer’s fans probably knew far more about his record against Djokovic (second man to defeat Florian Mayer in a major quarterfinal) than Federer himself did, for all that he, like Nadal, is unusually retentive of such details. But Federer knows far better what it feels like to play Djokovic. This is arguably more useful than the searing awareness that he had lost four of their last five encounters at Grand Slam level. During the first set of today’s semifinal you can be sure he wasn’t attempting to win his first set from the last nine, stretching back to last year’s US Open. He was just trying to win one, and he did. Then he tried to win another one, but didn’t, at least not straight away.

Todd Woodbridge helpfully reminded me that Federer had never before lost a set in a Wimbledon semifinal (not even to Jonas Bjorkman). This seemed like an important fact, and I wondered if Paul Annacone would risk a code violation in making his charge aware of it. John Newcombe, on the other hand, has little head for statistics. Indeed, the only numbers he seems to be aware of when watching Federer play are ‘four or five’. In 2012, this is how many years it has been since Newk last saw Federer play this well. Last year it was ‘three or four’. You can imagine the verbal difficulties he encountered back in 2007, when Federer was apparently playing like this all the time. I suppose it was merely a way of saying this was vintage form. Not for the first time this fortnight, I wished he had just said that. In any case, Federer recovered from his first dropped set in a Wimbledon semifinal, and took hold of the match in the third, as the world No.1’s form rapidly dipped.

It was certainly a vintage performance on serve. Federer’s variety was immense, and Djokovic, by broad consensus the finest returner in the game, was constantly guessing wrong. There were some beautiful body serves at the Serb’s right hip. Djokovic is good enough that even when guessing wrong, on grass, he can get a racquet on the ball, but he too often managed little more than that. He won 28% of points on Federer’s second serve. He also committed twice as many errors (21 to 10), and slipped around a lot. Djokovic’s ongoing effectiveness against Federer is heavily reliant upon superb movement and the capacity to force the Swiss into desperate errors. Not today.

The last point of the match was a curious echo of Federer’s final point at the 2009 French Open: a first serve up the T to the ad court, an off forehand return dumped meekly into the net, and a pause so tiny it might have been missed had it not been so pregnant. I momentarily expected the sport’s greatest player to collapse to his knees and raise his hands to his face, but the colours were wrong – white and green instead of blue and red – and the moment passed. Federer thrust his arms aloft, and shook his fist, his relief a muted echo of his wife Mirka’s, whose face was tilted gratefully to the heavens, or to the roof, whichever had been more helpful. Federer is the first man to reach eight Wimbledon finals in the Open Era.

Federer is often asked in interviews which of the achievements still remaining to him would mean the most, and if he could achieve just one, which it would it be. It’s usually a multiple choice question, and the options generally include claiming an Olympic gold medal in singles, winning another Wimbledon title, or regaining the No.1 ranking. If he is victorious on Sunday he will claim his seventh Wimbledon and seventeenth major title. He will also regain the No.1 ranking for the first time in over two years, and it will be impossible for him to reign there for less than the two weeks he requires to surpass Sampras’s record of 286 weeks atop the ATP rankings. Perhaps more importantly, he will also become the first man to defeat Andy Murray in three major finals, and the first to do any of that while his dad wears a lucky red hat.


Filed under Grand Slams

Temazepam Tuesday

Wimbledon, Day Eight

(7) Ferrer d. (9) del Potro, 6/3 6/2 6/3

Less than twenty-four hours after Mikhail Youzhny realised his secret lifelong goal of reaching the quarterfinal stage at all four majors – the fact that he has previously gone on record about this precisely nowhere merely speaks to its secrecy – David Ferrer has done the same. They are two veterans whose destinies are now forever entangled. Word is that the Tennis Channel is planning an hour-long special, narrated by Morgan Freeman. Facetiousness aside, it is an achievement, especially for Ferrer, who for too long has been written off as a mere clay-courter. It would be a stretch to call him a grass-courter, but then we don’t really have those any more. On a snoozy Tuesday at Wimbledon, Ferrer was the one worth staying awake for.

Hitting a winner against Ferrer today wasn’t the same as hitting one against, say, Andy Roddick, who blankets the net like a small bunny-rug, in order to prove that passing shots are more or less the same as any other groundstroke. In all, Juan Martin del Potro struck 37 winners and 20 unforced errors (although these are Wimbledon-branded unforced errors, which only register when you miss a shot so badly that it takes out a spectator on an adjacent court). And he still lost 3, 2, and 3. Ferrer struck 34 winners, and only eight unforced errors. Undoubtedly he hit more errors than that, but I can’t remember them. He was a wall, a lazy metaphor that fissures when one considers that the height disparity means del Potro could step over it, and that collapses entirely when one tries to evoke the Spaniard’s incredible mobility, and his keenness to attack wherever possible. An aggressive wall.

Nevertheless, the story of the match was not how many winners Del Potro struck, but how many more winners he should have produced but didn’t. There is no statistic for that. Nor are there any figures to tell us how often Ferrer lacked even the manners to yield up a forced error, where a more gracious competitor would have been more accommodating. Anyway, the point is that Ferrer’s immense skills of retrieval were today operating at a level that drew admiring titters from the commentators, and that drove del Potro spare. From this moment in each point, one of three outcomes was possible. The Argentine might relent, at which point Ferrer would skilfully step in and grasp the initiative. (This happened about 34 times.) Del Potro might go for more, and dispatch a winner that even Ferrer couldn’t track down. (This happened about 37 times.) Del Potro might go for more, but make an error. There was also any number of rallies in which Ferrer maintained the initiative from the beginning – whether it was on his own serve or his opponent’s – and quite a few excellent passing shots.

This is a pretty long way of saying that Ferrer was impeccable, and that those who would ridicule his chances of reaching the semifinal or final would do well to revise their opinions skywards, especially if you’re British. He was a small, swiftly moving wall that his much taller opponent couldn’t scale, and which periodically fired bricks out with great force. It’s a cliché, but it will have to do. There probably needs to be a dog in there somewhere, as well.

(31) Mayer d. (18) Gasquet, 6/3 6/1 3/6 6/2

Richard Gasquet has certainly not reached the quarterfinal stage at all four majors. Indeed, he has reached the quarterfinal at only one major, which was Wimbledon, although it wasn’t this year. It was in 2007, the year he broke into the top ten. Since then he has fallen eight times in the fourth round at majors, for an overall record of 1-12 at this stage. The latest loss occurred today, when he was upset by Florian Mayer in four sets, suggesting that the Frenchman’s current ranking in the mid-teens feels about right.

Mayer’s delightfully eccentric and slice-addled game should translate very well to grass, but for some reason it rarely does. His only previous trip to the Wimbledon quarterfinals was on debut in 2004, although to be fair that remained the only time he has passed the third round at any major until today, which I find frankly baffling, even allowing for his periodic injury woes. Astute readers may be aware that I’ve had a soft spot for Mayer for some time (since, well, 2004). He’ll face Djokovic in the next round, so his chances of reaching a maiden semifinal are not fantastic. In any case, he was tremendous today, especially on return of serve. He sliced Gasquet to ribbons. I could say that his scything flat shots forced his opponent back off the baseline, but this is Gasquet, and Amanda Koetzer could force him off the baseline, even now. But once the Frenchman was comfortably entrenched by the back hoarding, Mayer’s skill with angles and paces succeeded in making Gasquet look pretty foolish. I like Gasquet, but it’s the complicated regard that I suspect all his fans feel, and includes a certain measure of satisfaction when he is punished for his horrendous court-positioning.

(4) Murray d. (16) Cilic, 7/5 6/2 6/3

(5) Tsonga d. (10) Fish, 4/6 7/6 6/4 6/4

(27) Kohlschreiber d. (Q) Baker, 6/1 7/6 6/3

I won’t spend too long on the remaining matches, although I did watch all of them as well as I could. Andy Murray was very solid against Marin Cilic in their delayed match, so much so that the Croatian’s very long match in the prior round was rendered irrelevant. I’m not sure anyone hits backhands as hard as Murray when he wants to. The issue, as ever, is why he so often doesn’t want to. He was charming and personable afterwards, and flat out said he didn’t care what court he played on, which has in no way inspired anyone else in England to change their tune. The tune itself is worthy but dull, and they have no gift for variation whatsoever. Perhaps Beethoven could have done something with it – look at that Diabelli waltz – but it’s all too much for the London press. He’ll face David Ferrer next, on Centre Court, and his legion fans will have more to worry about.

Meanwhile Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Mardy Fish battled manfully to see who could snare the lion’s share of the trainer’s attention. Fish served the ball into a linesperson’s eye, which is altogether more impressive than hitting a bottle off someone’s head. Luckily there’s vision, so to speak, and the video has made the rounds. The latest is that we’re all impressed that she still made the call. Stiff upper lip and all that, even with a bruised eye socket. Tsonga improved enormously as the match continued, and is looking very strong for at least a quarterfinal. He’ll face Philipp Kohlschreiber, who ended Brian Baker’s dream run. Indeed, Kohlschreiber has been on something of a dream-crushing spree this tournament, having already taken out Tommy Haas in the opening round, and Lukas Rosol in the third. I still like him, though.

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Unnamed Monday

Wimbledon, Day Seven

Of the 128 men who more or less randomly populated the Wimbledon men’s singles draw on the tournament’s opening morning, fully 112 failed to last the week. They have since joined forces with the roughly three billion other men who never had any chance, a staggering tally that features yours truly, although not prominently. We are the rabble, for all that our number includes kings and captains, cabbages and Rafael Nadal. Sixteen men remained, and it is only by generously rounding up that I could even call them the one per cent, although doing so was a necessary step in cultivating my outrage. Their number included Roger Federer and Denis Istomin. They got to play in the second week. It’s a privilege.

All sixteen men were scheduled to play today, ostensibly the greatest single day of tennis in the year – our sport’s answer to Sandwich Day – which is surely a blow to the US Open organisers, who’ve gone to some lengths to dub their second Saturday ‘Super’. Isn’t it fitting that the second Monday at Wimbledon doesn’t even have a name? Can you imagine an American event permitting that oversight to continue? Think of the wasted marketing potential, the value of which can be measured in ‘Lobotomies per square mile’. My research department informs me that by failing properly to christen its second Monday, Wimbledon has foregone approximately 143,400 lobotomies in the Open Era. That’s a lot of people who are still capable of independent thought. Frankly, it’s too many.

With that in mind, I propose the formation of a working committee to address this issue. After all, a concept un-marketed is a concept wasted, a concession to the vacuum, and I vaguely recall reading somewhere that nature abhors those, although I might be thinking of gerbils. The first rule of naming anything is that, as with Superman’s love-interests, one cannot go wrong with alliteration. That’s presumably why Super Saturday is such an unalloyed success, since it cannot be due to the undoubted wisdom of scheduling both men’s semifinals the afternoon before the final. Sadly, Mad Monday is already taken, although ‘mad’, like ‘super’ is suggestive. What it suggests is that whichever word is eventually chosen – following an extensive submission and shortlisting process – must lend itself to exclamation points, and to deployment in the kind of font that would flash up on screen whenever Adam West or Burt Ward punched people. Mental is therefore good. Mellow is not. Maximum might usefully be incorporated. Midget, not so much. Manic would work, if it hadn’t been co-opted by the same women who ruined Egyptian perambulation for everyone. Anyway, submissions are open.

(3) Federer d. Malisse, 7/6 6/1 4/6 6/3

Mostly today was Meteorologically-Abbreviated Monday, which I don’t expect will catch on, notwithstanding that England is the spot for it. Only three of the eight scheduled matches saw completion. The first of these, assessed chronologically and in terms of concern over Roger Federer’s spine, was said player’s scratchy, lurching, masterful, lumbar-inhibited victory over Xavier Malisse. Malisse Monday? Federer, as almost anyone who cares will presumably already know, was troubled from near the outset, especially in his movement, footwork, groundstrokes, volleys, and serve. His hair was pretty good, and at one point he rocked the hell out of a fairly natty cream sweater. But he could barely push to his right, and his forehands were uncharacteristically feeble when stretched that way. Malisse duly stretched him to that side, but nowhere near often enough.

Initial bafflement among the faithful bloomed into heaving unease when Federer left the court leading 4/3 in the first set for a medical time-out. John Newcombe, commentating on Channel Seven, perceptively suggested that Federer might be sick. Malaise Monday? Darren Cahill over on ESPN had already identified a back issue. Federer returned eight minutes later, but hadn’t improved. Malisse pushed him wide to the forehand, and broke. Then the Belgian made a tiny tactical error, although it was one that would ultimately cost him the set, if not the match. He stopped hitting the ball wide to Federer’s forehand, and he stopped hitting the ball into the court. Federer was by now caressing his shots with a Tomic-like somnolence, and in several pivotal rallies merely goaded Malisse into over-hitting. These points were usefully interleaved with ripping backhand passes, deft hands, and brazen chip-charges. Anything but big forehands. The second set disappeared quickly. Once he’d broken back in the fourth, that one went quickly too. Malisse grabbed a set, too. Mercurial Monday?

(26) Youzhny d. Istomin, 6/3 5/7 6/4 6/7 7/5

That might usefully describe Mikhail Youzhny’s fairly stirring win over Denis Istomin, who, had he won, would have seemed like a pretty unlikely Wimbledon quarterfinalists, in contrast to Youzhny, who has somehow never been there, either. This is surprising. It feels like Youzhny should have made the quarterfinals of Wimbledon before. Indeed, there’s no one particularly good reason why so elegant a grass-courter hasn’t reached the final eight in a career’s-worth of visits (he has done so at each of the other majors), although there are lots of little ones. Mostly he keeps losing in the fourth round. I suppose that’s hard to argue with.

Anyway, The Colonel didn’t lose today, but it was a close thing. Up two sets to one, it seemed quite likely that he’d finish it off, especially since Istomin’s lone set had come against the run of play. Then Istomin augmented his lone set with another, further thumbling his nose at the run of play. Then he broke in the fifth – thereby blowing his nose on the run of play’s favourite t-shirt – and nothing made sense anymore: Muddled Monday. Youzhny broke back, quite magnificently, and displayed typical reticence in broadcasting his satisfaction, looking as ever like he could bite the head off a chicken in his exultation. Again the hope that he’d push on was quashed, or at least forestalled, as Istomin kept finding break points, although Youzhny kept retrieving them – overhead winner, ace, forehand – in a long tenth game that Istomin otherwise spent supine on the turf. There was a persistent misty drizzle, and footing was not secure. Youzhny held, then eventually broke. He’ll next face Federer, for the former a first Wimbledon quarterfinal, for the latter his tenth in a row.

(1) Djokovic d. Troicki, 6/3 6/1 6/3

The only other completed match saw Victor Troicki put in his usual effort when confronted with the towering Novak Djokovic – Matterhorn Monday – which is to say a perfunctory one, suggesting that Janko Tipsarevic’s newfound determination to take it to the world No.1 isn’t at risk of becoming a trend among his lesser compatriots. As ever, this lesser compatriot instead set about proving Henry Ford’s famously inspirational maxim: ‘Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re Viktor Troicki.’ Being who he is, he probably wasn’t going to beat Djokovic, who has the wherewithal to be what he is irrespective of our beliefs, but he could have given a far better account of himself. He needed to be a better Troicki than the one he invariably is when faced with the defending champion.

Djokovic looked tremendous, but it was the kind of tremendous that is almost troubling for a fan, since it’s so good you immediately assume it isn’t real, like watching someone nail every shot in target practice. Whether Troicki lurched to the net, or noodled about near the baseline, target practice was all he provided. Mismatch Monday.

The rest of the matches will be finished on Tuesday. Train-wreck. Torrential. Tangential . . .  


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Top Shelf Trogglehumpers

Wimbledon, Days Four and Five

The BFG was getting more distressed every moment. ‘Oh bash my eyebones!’ he cried, waving the jar in the air. ‘I come all this way to get lovely golden dreams and what is I catching?’

‘What are you catching?’ Sophie said.

‘I is catching a frightsome trogglehumper!’ he cried. ‘This is a bad bad dream! It is worse than a bad dream! This is a nightmare!’

Rosol d. (2) Nadal, 6/7 6/4 6/4 2/6 6/4

Fans of Rafael Nadal awoke this morning to discover that the player they adore above all others did indeed lose a tennis match to Lukas Rosol yesterday. It is a deflating realisation to wake up to, and its low-key squalor suggests something of how experiencing your favourite’s loss is a delicate kind of grief, in the way it embroiders your idle moments, and in the way it insistently picks at your sense of time. Causal threads snap, and you lose yourself in fruitless and aimless musings on what might have been; had he only made that return, or stood closer to the baseline, or had the roof closed quicker and the other guy choked the way he was meant to. The comfort of these musings grows frigid as you recall that musings are all they are. Time’s arrow won’t be deflected, certainly not by a mere effort of will. He really did lose. It isn’t a dream, but you can’t wake up.

Writing in another guise of other things, I once remarked that ‘the inventory of perfect things he should have said grew definite in his mind, like figurines vigorously sanded and buffed until they were fitting ornaments, cherished knick-knacks on the mantelpiece of his sad torpor.’ Setting aside the undoubted arrogance of quoting oneself and the immortal Roald Dahl in the same piece – I’ll get some Shakespeare in before the end, just see if I don’t – it hopefully evokes something of how these idle and pointless musings rapidly ossify into discrete objects, to the extent that they can only be altered with great effort. Many tennis fans then hone these objects to a fine point, take them to the internet, and hurl them at each other.

Anyway, such musings – useful musings – drew me to the fancy that we tennis fans apprehend entire matches in more or less the same way. Their dramatic coherence and identifiable narratives enable us to treat them like books or movies or ornaments, which is to say tangible and understandable entities in and of themselves. These can be meaningfully juxtaposed against each other, endlessly permutated and arranged into a kind of glass bead game.

Like the Big Friendly Giant’s dreams – he is, fundamentally, a kind of protean dream nerd – our seminal matches are carefully catalogued and arranged. (If there’s one activity nerds cherish, it is cataloguing their collections. Recall Rob in High Fidelity, who sought solace after a painful breakup by reorganising his vast record collection autobiographically.) The best matches go on the top shelf, like the best spirits at a bar. High atop my shelves sit the 2000 Wimbledon semifinal between Rafter and Agassi, and the incomparable 2006 Rome final, among the most pivotal matches of the era. Other matches are arrayed around and below these according to a complex system of associations and instinct and flavour. To take an obvious example, the 2001 Wimbledon semifinal between the same two protagonists – superficially similar but dramatically distant – is nearby, but not too close. As in a bar, the liquor gets worse as your gaze descends. Djokovic and Troicki’s hopeless encounter from Bercy last year sits under the sink, labelled piratically, and is used to clean vomit out of the carpet. Nadal and Verdasco’s match from Cincinnati is the vomit.

Whenever an important new match takes place we immediately cross-reference it against our collection, to see how it fits. After Nadal fell to Rosol, the immediate and obvious comparison was to Soderling at Roland Garros in 2009. Once this latest loss is bottled, space will surely be made for it nearby on the same shelf. Rosol’s name – which has become smeared with a Soderling-like infamy among Nadal fans in the last 24 hours – has also established a resonance with those of other random and unlikely past vanquishers, such as Gilles Müller or Igor Andreev. From now on we’ll be reliably and patiently informed of what a threat Rosol is, should they ever meet again, much like Muller and Andreev aren’t. Now, I can of course see why the comparison to the Soderling match has been made, since in both cases they were unimagined upsets in which a big man simply and cruelly hit through Nadal with an utter disregard for the gravity of the moment. Soderling and Rosol are the Fleshlumpeater and the Butcher Boy of this ongoing saga. But I suspect there’s a better spot on the shelves for this match.

I’m going to put it next to Martin Verkerk’s astounding upset of Carlos Moya at the 2003 French Open, a key encounter in the Dutchman’s frankly ridiculous run to the final that year. His straight sets dismantling of Guillermo Coria in the semifinals is probably more remembered, if only for the moment when the Argentine was nearly defaulted. But it’s important to recall that Moya was considered a favourite for the Roland Garros title that year. It was blithely assumed that he would, with little trouble, halt this nonsensical Dutch sideshow in the quarterfinals. But Verkerk’s performance that day was fearsome, fearless and pugnacious. He matched the Spaniard’s intensity, and transcended it, demonstrating no appreciation of just how unlikely victory was, of how poor his movement was – he had the turning circle of an oil rig – and of how effortlessly Moya was supposed to dismantle him. He won, in five sets, by hitting the ball very powerfully into parts of the court where Moya wasn’t, over and over again. Sound familiar? It was, frankly, Soderling-like. I mean Rosol-like. I mean . . . Thinking on it, perhaps those three matches can go together, on a special shelf of their own.

(3) Federer d. (29) Benneteau, 4/6 6/7 6/2 7/6 6/1

This brings us to Roger Federer’s stirring recovery at Wimbledon today, in which he trailed Julien Benneteau by two sets to love, before defeating him by three sets to two. Federer has now achieved this feat eight times in his career, although, mercifully, it hasn’t always been against Benneteau. The Frenchman’s angry tears as Federer gained match points suggested that once is enough. As a match, it resists lazy taxonomy. Perhaps we just need more time.

For now, I’ve chosen to place it alongside Federer’s similar recoveries against Alejandro Falla in the first round of Wimbledon two years ago, and against Tomas Berdych at the Australian Open in 2009. My reason for this is that, even at two sets to love down, I somehow couldn’t imagine Federer actually losing. He probably felt differently, and many of his fans undoubtedly did, especially once that second set tiebreaker spiralled away vertiginously, following three missed set points. There was, naturally, the widespread assumption that Benneteau could not sustain his level of reckless brilliance. But Rosol had forcefully reminded us that one actually can, although Radek Stepanek had mounted a persuasive counter-argument some hours earlier, as he tumbled sharply against a surging Djokovic.

Honestly, Benneteau was brilliant, even more so than the time he beat Federer in Paris. Each of those set points was saved with a winner – forehand, ace, drop volley – and he was overcoming Federer in most of the baseline exchanges. Federer was playing decently, except in that first tiebreak, but Benneteau was matching him, especially in that long crucial third game of the second set, in which Federer was laboriously broken back, to his audible dismay. Federer fans twitched, and cleared some space near the 2008 Wimbledon final – a horrid trogglehumper, that one; awful and resplendent on a shelf of its own – uneasily recalling nightmares of second set breaks squandered.

There was always the sense that Federer had another gear to go to, to peddle cliché. As Agassi put it, Federer will periodically ascend ‘to a place I don’t recognise’. Once he got on top in the third set, it seemed clear he’d found that gear, and, furthermore, that any eventual five setter would favour him physically. Some dicey moments arrived at the end of the fourth set, when Federer had to fight to attain the tiebreaker, as a resurgent Benneteau proved resourceful in saving game points, but couldn’t find the crucial shots in the deuce court. The tiebreaker was a glorious mess, and the Frenchman came within two points of the match, but still I didn’t feel like Federer would allow Benneteau to win. His second serve grew monstrous, an ominous sign in a sport in which that’s the thing you’re allegedly only as good as. Once Federer had the fourth set in hand, like the Falla match from 2010, his opponent fell away, and the Swiss was inexorable. Benneteau’s legs gave out. He received treatment for this, and copped more than a few stern words from the supervisor.

How high a shelf this match will occupy is up for debate, though it’s the kind of debate that cannot be usefully conducted on short notice. Everyone tried that after the Australian Open final, and looked surprised when the highest shelf proved too fragile by half for so ponderous and hefty a bauble, and promptly collapsed, wounding a number of bystanders. A sense of perspective is imperative. I realise this is a fairly quixotic sentiment to maintain on the internet. It’s usually best to sleep on it, even if for Benneteau his dreams might all be fearsome trogglehumpers. But dreams are what we’re made of, and sleep rounds out our little lives. There’s your Shakespeare. Tomorrow we’ll know what it all meant, even if sometimes, nightmares aside, we’d prefer not to wake.


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A Visit To The World of Tennis

Wimbledon, Day Three

Channel Seven’s broadcast of the 2012 Wimbledon Championships was last night as curiously free of John Newcombe’s presence as the singles draw is of Australian men. These two phenomena are not unrelated. Indeed, one presumes that this was a key component of Newcombe’s contract, that he’ll only tarry so long as he can rhapsodise glowingly about those young men who selected their country of origin with adequate care.

The word is that this marks the first time no Australian man has progressed to the second round of the Championships since we Australian men first emerged from the primordial muck in the late Devonian period. Other Australian men, whose task it is to aggrandise or excoriate the nation’s athletes in national newspapers, have relished the opportunity to bemoan this rare achievement.  Today Sam Stosur was upset by Aranxta Rus, which has seen the disparate moans unite and swell to an ululating wail, rather like having a squadron of Ju-87s descending on you. As reigning US Open champion, she is supposed to do what our men could not. She did, but only for a round. Failure this comprehensive, it is reasoned, points to structural issues, which are easier to talk about than the nebulous idea that sometimes tennis players just lose. Meanwhile Channel Seven, incensed and rudderless, inflicted Caroline Wozniacki on us until we begged them to stop.

(Q) Janowicz d. Gulbis, 2/6 6/4 3/6 7/6 9/7

Sometimes tennis players lose a lot, and they lose in fascinatingly predictable ways. Ernests Gulbis’ affable suggestion that he could follow-up his superb victory over Tomas Berdych by losing to Jerzy Janowicz was greeted with the knowing amusement everyone felt it merited, even though it has since turned out to be depressingly accurate. At the time it was hard to take the Latvian too seriously, because it was in a press conference and his editions of those are less than dour, but also because his airy prediction languished beneath much talk of new leaves being upended, corners turned, and other clichés that sound less trite when you’ve just straight-setted the seventh seed on Centre Court.

To be fair, it did look somewhat like a new Gulbis that fell to Janowicz, although it wasn’t quite the new Gulbis that had seen off Berdych two days earlier. Still, this Gulbis was committed, and actually played quite well, where the old one would have merely flailed about disinterestedly. Janowicz is a large unit, with a powerful and varied serve well-suited to grass, which began to figure increasingly as the fifth set wore down. Gulbis won more points overall, but not in that crucial game deep in the fifth, when the Pole started to guess on return, and to guess right.

(31) Mayer d. Petzschner, 3/6 3/6 6/4 6/2 6/4

Janowicz will play Florian Mayer in the next round, which one imagines is not an ideal match-up for him, although Mayer has mostly under-achieved on grass. Mayer took out Philipp Petzschner in a relatively quick five setter. Before you knew it, Petzschner had blown a two set to love lead, which is kind of his specialty; thereby proving that with practice comes efficiency. Apparently he now has the career grand slam in this area. It’s something to be proud of, I suppose, although any man wearing knee-socks has conceivably ventured beyond pride. As ever when these two play, I am reminded that both men hail from Bayreuth, yet I search in vain for a suitably Wagnerian angle. (I’ve used Rossini’s famous dismissals of Wagner before, though I ache to use them again.†) Wimbledon will only consider an error unforced if you stand at the net with the ball in your hand, drop it over and somehow miss the court. Consequently the statistics in this area can be safely disregarded. This match was nowhere as clean as the stats suggest. It was frankly a bit of a mess. Like Die Walküre. That’ll have to do.

(3) Federer d. Fognini, 6/1 6/3 6/2

Roger Federer was beyond clean in his consummate thrashing of Fabio Fognini (although even in this case the tally of 8 unforced errors recorded by the tournament was surely generous). Given the Italian’s celebrated dramatic gifts, it proved wise on Federer’s part to permit him insufficient time and space in which to perform. After recovering from 0-30 in his opening service game, Federer hardly relented. Fognini was under immense pressure the entire time. Although this periodically spurred him to audacious winners – I can think of three backhands in particular, all completely different, since even he found them to be unrepeatable – it mostly left him frustrated, which in his case is generally a recipe for disinterest. Fognini’s gift for theatre requires a suitable moment in which to flourish. His true gift is for noting this moment as it arrives, when the tension might be cranked up to an unbearable level, whereupon he’ll call for a medical timeout, or serve four aces, or drop his trousers. But Federer was today so powerful and precise that no such moment arrived. There was no late comeback, no escalating series of holds, no tiebreaks. Fognini achieved a perfect record on break point conversions: 0/0. The most dramatic moment came when Federer fell late in proceedings and appeared to twist his left knee. Apparently it wasn’t serious, and it didn’t help Fognini. This is one of those matches for which I can happily recommend highlights, since even an edited package won’t feel qualitatively different from watching the match.

Afterwards Federer granted Prince Charles an audience. I cannot say what was said, since the Wimbledon website has been typically slow in providing a transcript. Astute royal watchers will recall that slightly goofy moment when Jim Courier forced Federer to address Prince William on court in Melbourne a few years ago: ‘Welcome to the world of tennis, Your Highness.’ (It’s at 3:36 in this clip.) Even without Courier presiding, I pray Federer had the grace to bring that moment up while chatting to William’s dad, and remembered to welcome His Royal Highness to the world of tennis.


†‘Wagner is a composer who has beautiful moments but awful quarter hours,’ or;

‘One cannot judge Lohengrin after a first hearing, and I certainly don’t intend to hear it a second time.’

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Good News and Bad

Wimbledon, Day One

Gulbis d. (7) Berdych, 7/6 7/6 7/6

‘Some have pointed to Berdych v Gulbis, leaving one to wonder just how long the Latvian has to underperform before he isn’t considered a threat.’  During the course of a lengthy Wimbledon draw analysis, in which I strayed edifyingly through a number of unrelated areas and used the phrase ‘sleep around’ a lot, this was about as close as I came to actually making any kind of prediction. Glib though it was, I was quite confident. Ernests Gulbis of course upset Tomas Berdych in three sets today (all impeccable tiebreaks), thereby meting out hubristic damnation on me and generating an exhausting torrent of punning headlines elsewhere. In my defence, there was surely no way of knowing that this was going to happen, and that it would happen on the world’s most famous tennis court to a world No.7 who was actually playing very well. Berdych’s complicated expression of sickly disappointment during the handshake said it all: self-disgust, layered atop frustration at a freakishly unlucky draw, bafflement and relief that Gulbis doesn’t play this well all the time, and an urge to quit the scene immediately, in pursuit of a stiff drink.

Gulbis struck 62 winners, featuring 30 aces (several on second serves), in just three sets. The winners that weren’t aces were usefully spread across forehands (he’s changed his swing), backhands, and net play. Indeed, it is to Berdych’s credit that all three sets reached tiebreakers, especially the third one, when he had to save several match points on serve at 4/5. Gulbis afterwards suggested that it had actually helped him to draw a big name player on Centre Court first up, with the corollary being that his next match, against a qualifier on an outer paddock court, will be eminently losable. Or not. I’d relish seeing him go further, playing like this. Either way, I’m not making any predictions.

From my remote command centre in Melbourne, the choices of what to watch were broad, although as ever greater choice did not necessarily guarantee greater satisfaction. I had a comprehensive array of streams at my disposal, a kind of endlessly buffering panopticon. Fox Sports always feels underdone and seems to show the wrong thing. And, for that heady cocktail of cringe-inducing hilarity, there was of course Channel Seven, ably anchored by the preternaturally cheerful Todd Woodbridge.

Seven typically kicked off its coverage with a comprehensive round-up of those few Australians who’d by varying means stumbled into the main draw, followed by a skewed analysis of which of them would progress farthest through it. John Newcombe, always keen to prove that nationalistic derangement and tennis commentary aren’t mutually exclusive, essayed the confident opinion that Lleyton Hewitt was about a 40% chance to take out Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in their first round match. Woodbridge, lurking beside him, said little at the time, although later during commentary he upgraded Our Lleyton’s chances to 50%, suggesting that whatever Newcombe spiked his drink with took about an hour to metabolise.

Seven then put the question of which Australian would go farthest (out of Sam Stosur, Bernard Tomic and Hewitt) to the viewers. 62% of those viewers who can be bothered to respond to this kind of thing – a startlingly large proportion – believed in Stosur, while 35% had faith in Tomic. This left an impressive 3% of viewers supporting Hewitt. We were sternly reminded that this was the 10th anniversary of his Wimbledon triumph, but the numbers remained firm, which seemed fair enough. After all, it’s the 60th anniversary of Frank Sedgman’s title, and no one is giving him much of a chance, either.

It was to Channel Seven’s profound ire that two of the three Australians permitted to grace televised courts today were scheduled to play at the same time. While they’ll happily abandon, say, Federer versus Djokovic to shows us Jelena Dokic hitting against a wall, they will never abandon Our Sam while any strength remains in the director’s body. Not for long anyway. We were periodically torn away from Stosur’s hiding of Carla Stepanek Navarro to witness key moments in Jarmila Gjadosova’s straightforward loss to Ayumi Morita, with each cross prefaced by the phrase, ‘Well, it’s more bad news for Jarmila.’ Later on it was more bad news for Anastasia Rodionova, who has never quite captured the imagination of Australian tennis fans, and was dealt the ultimate insult when the broadcaster bumped her match for Federer’s.

Initially it seemed like pretty bad news for Mikhail Youzhny, as he fell down a set and a break to Donald Young, before the good doctor remembered that Young isn’t actually that good, whereupon the Russian commenced dispatching lovely backhand winners all over the place, volleying beautifully, looking fiery (if sadly beardless) and winning most of the games. Young unleashed his full repertoire of despondent body language. He is the Roger Federer of shoulder slumps. At about the same time Richard Gasquet saw off the eternally underperforming Tobias Kamke with, I felt, surprising ease. (I harbour the same hopes for Kamke that others have for Gulbis, with even less reason.) There were, naturally, backhands. Fernando Verdasco was making rather a hash of it against Jimmy Wang, or as much of a hash as a straight sets win can be. Whenever I switched to his court the Spaniard was failing to serve out a set. I think he was broken while doing so every time.

With no way to show us Marinko Matosevic losing to Xavier Malisse, a frustrated Channel Seven was obliged to show Djokovic starting slowly – some of the early misses were horrendous – but finishing rapidly against Juan Carlos Ferrero. Since there were no Australians involved, even tangentially, Seven didn’t bother to send a commentator along, and instead relayed Simon Reed and Boris Becker. As with Newcombe, Becker has been there and done it all at Wimbledon, much like Mats Wilander at Roland Garros. The level of insight was about the same. Occasionally an Australian voice would chime in, although not seamlessly, ‘Well, it’s more bad news for Marinko.’ A score update would helpfully illustrate this bad news, which progressively got worse.

It was then demonstrated that even Federer isn’t worth Newcombe’s time, although there was little opportunity to reflect on this, as Federer set about proving that Albert Ramos wasn’t worth much of his time, either: 6/1 6/1 6/1, in 79 minutes. According to the notoriously lenient Wimbledon stats, Federer hit 10 unforced errors. In truth, it felt like slightly more than that, but only slightly. Ramos, utterly outclassed and on the wrong surface, was lucky to escape a triple bagel. He only held serve twice, and he was fortunate to escape in one of those. Leaving the court, Ramos admittedly didn’t look like he felt very lucky, although I can’t imagine he’d expected to win. Federer received a standing ovation. Suddenly, despite all the bad news, it felt like Wimbledon was under way.


Filed under Grand Slams

Luck of the Draw: Wimbledon 2012

The latest research in draw analysis theory has identified five discernible stages that a zealous tennis fan moves through when the draw to a Grand Slam tournament is released, which happened amidst moderate fanfare earlier today at Wimbledon. Draw analysis theory – which Americans call ‘Bracketology’, although only they find this cute – has developed into an exciting field in its own right, and many adjacent disciplines are seeking to utilise its findings.

Evolutionary psychologists, for example, have attempted to correlate draw analysis responses with survival behaviours found in primitive hunter gatherer societies. Admittedly, this effort is limited to a particular branch of evolutionary psychology, specifically the one whose exponents gained wide public favour some years back by writing loosely argued but lavishly illustrated books explaining why it is acceptable for married men to sleep around. (While it’s true that most of the public favour originated with married men, who could now turn to their spouses and declare, ‘Hey, it’s science, baby!’, that didn’t hurt sales. The books were generally called things like Why Woman Can’t Read Maps, and Men Have to Sleep Around, or Why Men Can’t Ask for Directions, and Have to Sleep Around. This also didn’t hurt sales. An era of blossoming promiscuity was only curtailed by the reality that most of these men did not really have the option of sleeping around. Once again, I digress.) The point is that this latest research has impeccable pedigree. Most of the authors use their middle initial, proving they’re real academics. These findings will be presented in a new book, due out this summer, entitled Bracketology, the Reading of Draws, and Why Men Have to Sleep Around. Look for it at all good airport book stores.

What the original research confirmed is that when we tennis fans are first presented with a draw to a major tennis tournament, we move through multiple stages of elation, anxiety and despondency, often too tediously for the naked eye to follow. As mentioned, the origins for this behaviour have been reliably traced to prehistoric times. For example, cave paintings recently discovered in the Kimberly region of Western Australia clearly show a man exultantly raising his arms aloft upon discovering that Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic have been drawn in the same half, again. The man is depicted as some form of sun-god, suggesting he painted it himself. Evolutionary psychologists believe this moment occurred directly before departing for a hunt, or after sleeping with his sister-in-law.

Stage 1: Exultant Righteousness

The first task for any subject approaching a new draw is to work out where the top seeds fall, in order to confirm that Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer have been drawn in the same half, meaning that they will meet in the semifinals. The function of this task is fairly straightforward. Confirmation of the cherished conspiracy theory – the draw is rigged (apparently by uncreative idiots) – creates a buffer of impenetrable self-righteousness to insulate the subject from the rigours ahead. A powerful cocktail of chemicals is released, chiefly serotonin, as well as oxytocin, which explains why this stage has been known to induce labour if experienced in the final trimester of pregnancy.

Stage 2: Indignation

Thus fortified, the subject is now keen to see how his or her favourite player might fare. In the case of the general tennis fan, this almost inevitably means Nadal, Djokovic or Federer, and perhaps Murray. This stage requires a tremendous output of energy, as the subject strives tirelessly to establish that the favoured player’s draw is the toughest since the age of legends, when the mighty Conan’s path to the Wimbledon final led over the crushed bodies of Hyperborian giants, fearsome Djinn and perfumed assassins, whereupon he was forced to dispatch the great serpent Set.

In the case of this year’s Wimbledon, we can say with some certainty that Federer’s fans have it hardest of all. The role of underdog is a cherished one, but his draw is so benign that there is just no chance. ‘But he may have to play Youzhny in the quarterfinals!’ they implore. On the other hand, Murray’s fans couldn’t be happier. He has a draw from hell, worthy of any Cimmerian reaver, with a quarter featuring Raonic, Del Potro and Cilic. The BBC is practically orgasmic with dread. Highlander metaphors are being sharpened as we speak.

Nadal’s draw is slightly kinder, although he will be forced to navigate a quarter unusually light on fellow Spaniards, apart from Lopez. Djokovic’s is entirely manageable.

Stage 3A: Curiosity and Peckishness

This is the point at which avowedly committed tennis fans seek to put some distance between themselves and more casual pundits. He or she will commence wondering loudly at the fortunes of several slightly obscure players, although they will usually be players who have featured in the news lately.

For example, I note that Tommy Haas, recent champion in Halle, has drawn his compatriot Kohlschreiber in the first round. But what of David Goffin? Well, he plays Bernard Tomic first up. Brian Baker? He has navigated qualifying with nary a hitch, and faces Rui Machado. Grigor Dimitrov is fast developing into a perennial favourite in this stage. Those fancying themselves true fans will note that he has drawn Kevin Anderson, and will point out that these guys played each other last week at Queens.

Many fans will partake of a light snack at this point, and maybe a drink.

Stage 3B: Toilet Break

I think this speaks for itself.

Stage Four: Sleepiness

It is only with the first three stages out of the way that a tennis fan can think about actual tennis. The draw is minutely surveyed for the most interesting first-round matches. Even lacking an Order of Play to consult, the scheduling of these matches is also considered. Some people instead take a nap.

Consensus has it that the premium first-round matches are these: Hewitt v Tsonga, Nalbandian v Tipsarevic, Haas v Kohlschreiber and Fognini v Llodra. An honourable mention might go to Djokovic v Ferrero, though I cannot see that being close. British fans are endeavouring to convince everyone that Davydenko will pose some kind of challenge to Murray first up, which is frankly going overboard. Murray’s draw is otherwise tough enough that there’s no need to pretend Davydenko, who was weak on grass even in his prime, will pose any special problems. Some have pointed to Berdych v Gulbis, leaving one to wonder just how long the Latvian has to underperform before he isn’t considered a threat.

Stage Five: Catharsis, Boredom and Probably Something Else

Having navigated the first four stages, committed tennis fans now find themselves experiencing a mild post-draw high, a profound sense of well-being caused by a light release of endorphins, although as these drain away they are left with the depressing realisation that the tournament isn’t due to begin for another two days. There’s consequently nothing much to fill the time except watching Eastbourne, or seeing the top players being repeatedly interviewed so that they may also tell us how amazing it is to be back at SW19 and how splendid the courts are. With idle hands, bored and opinionated, there is only one option for us committed fans. The internet awaits.

Or, I suppose, we could just do something else.

The full draw can be found here.


Filed under Grand Slams